Should Sita Shun DRM?
Nina Paley is not only a famed artist and producer, having produced Sita Sings the Blues, the movie that is being called the most widely available film in history (review). She is also a one-woman warrior against copyright, leading first by example and then through patient explanation to the world art community via the website she runs with her colleagues, QuestionCopyright.org. The site is filled with fascinating articles on the topic.
Nina herself has the open-source faith and I find myself in full agreement with her on the advantages that accrue to artists from Creative Commons, the flat-out contradiction between the notion of intellectual property and the desire to spread beauty, the disincentives to creativity that are imposed by coercive monopolies on innovation, and the reliance that high-quality art in all ages has upon that creativity of others.
Artistic development in all ages is much like economic development: a complex and interactive process of both emulation and competition that relies on openness and not artificially imposed state restrictions.
She is so insistent on this that she reverses the usual language on her own art, insisting that no buyer or viewer of her film may copyright any portions of it or “attach Digital Restrictions Management (DRM) to Sita Sings the Blues or its derivative works.”
On the subject of Digital Rights Management, however, Nina has presented something of a challenge. From a private enterprise perspective, there would seem to be nothing wrong with DRM-like technologies, even if DRM itself has its own problems. It is an attempt to restrict the distribution of a product in the hope of greater commercialization and sales of the product. It might be a bad choice. Consumers may not like it. It might not eventually stand up to the long-run market test. But there would not seem to be anything particularly anti-market about the concept. It is like a trade secret, up to the discretion of the producer to keep or reveal.
Perhaps. Nina has a different point of view. She turned down the opportunity to distribute her film on Netflix because Netflix insists on using DRM. Nina does not want her fans to be forced to sign a DRM-based End User License Agreement that insists that viewers “surrender rights well beyond what copyright restricts.” She asked Netflix if it could make an exception for her film. Netflix could not and would not. So she surrendered what might have been her most lucrative distribution channel.
I can respect this decision. It seems to be a principled one based on her own open-source EULA she asks of her own viewers. The position seems rather extreme in some way, but she is on a mission to make a point. I do wonder, however, if her position here actually distracts from her core argument, which isn’t so much about DRM but copyright itself.
And surely there is a difference between keeping a secret, using private means to artificially restrict information flows, and a law enforced by the state that forcibly prohibits imitation, reproduction, and competition.
For example, let’s say that I’m selling the best watermelon you have ever had. I don’t have to reveal to you precisely how I’m able to grow it. It’s my secret. I might change my mind, but no one can change it for me. You may not use coercion to force me to tell you. At the same time, I cannot forcibly prevent you from trying to replicate my efforts. If you are able to figure out my secret, and you grow a watermelon that is equally good or better, and bring it to market, that’s my tough luck.
So I can easily imagine that DRM-like technologies would exist in a market economy and there is nothing particularly wrong with them. I don’t really see how the existence of DRM really depends on the state as such. How they are enforced, whether they should be enforceable, and what are the penalties (if any) should be hacking through DRM are other subjects that only Stephan Kinsella can fully explain.
At the time, one can’t but cheer on Nina’s stand in the Netflix case. An ideal resolution here would be for Netflix to loosen its own restrictions and make an exception for Paley.
In the meantime, we are planning a screening of Sita at the Mises Institute.